If you have breast cancer, you may need surgery to remove one or both breasts. Learn more about this sometimes life-saving procedure.

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Image of flowers Mastectomy

What is a mastectomy?

A mastectomy is the surgical removal of the breast. It may be done to treat or, in some cases, prevent breast cancer.

Breast surgery has changed a great deal in the past 20 years, making more options available. The four main types of mastectomy are:

  • Breast-sparing surgery (also called breast-conserving surgery, partial mastectomy, or lumpectomy). Only the tumor and tissue around it is removed.
  • Simple (or total) mastectomy. The entire breast is removed but no lymph nodes or muscles are taken.
  • Modified radical mastectomy. The breast and nearby lymph nodes are removed.
  • Radical mastectomy. The breast, lymph nodes and chest wall muscles under the breast are removed. This surgery is rarely done because in most cases modified radical mastectomy is just as effective and causes less damage.

Why does a mastectomy need to be done?

A mastectomy is one of the most effective treatments for breast cancer. After mastectomy, a woman may need radiation or chemotherapy, depending on the type of cancer she has.

In some cases it may be done to prevent breast cancer. This is called preventive (or prophylactic) mastectomy. This may be an option for some women who are at very high risk for breast cancer or who want to try to prevent further recurrence. Your doctor can help you decide if this surgery is right for you.

After mastectomy, a woman may choose to have breast reconstruction surgery to give her breast a more natural appearance.

How is a mastectomy performed?

It depends on the type of surgery. Breast-sparing surgery can be done with a small incision. The lump or tumor is removed, and the skin is closed. Usually the scar is small.

If lymph nodes or muscles are removed, the surgery becomes more complex. The scar may be large, and it may not be possible to save the nipple. The surgeon may place a plastic tube in the wound to drain off excess fluid.

The tissue that was removed is sent to the pathology lab for analysis. The pathology report will provide more information about the nature and extent of the cancer.

How long does the surgery take?

That depends on the surgeon and the type of mastectomy. Breast-sparing surgery may take less than an hour. A modified radical mastectomy may take two or three hours. Surgery will take longer if you have breast reconstruction after a mastectomy.

You will be given general anesthesia so you sleep through the surgery. You will probably be able to go home in one to three days if there are no major problems.

What are the risks?

Like any surgery, a mastectomy has risks, but serious problems are rare. Possible risks include:

  • Pain, tenderness or numbness in the affected area
  • Blood or fluid collecting under the scar
  • Infection
  • Hardened scar tissue

If your lymph nodes are removed, you might develop lymphedema, or swelling of the arm. This is a serious condition, but it can often be prevented. Tell your doctor if you have any pain, swelling or tightness in your arm.

By Lila Havens, Staff Writer
Created on 10/18/2005
Updated on 06/22/2010
  • Mastectomy.
  • American Cancer Society. Detailed guide: breast cancer. Surgery for breast cancer.
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology. After a mastectomy: what to know.
  • National Cancer Institute. Breast cancer treatment: treatment option overview.
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